The Wall is Everywhere – From Berlin to Brexit

In 1989, when the Wall of Berlin fell, everyone celebrated. We all thought the tide of History had turned and that the world was headed for a happy, peaceful, everlasting democratic future. Fukuyama’s famous article written that summer, optimistically titled “The End of History?”, encapsulated the celebratory mood and gave it a special meaning. Alas, the mood didn’t last long, the special meaning evaporated as wars broke out. Now, thirty years later, border walls are back.

As a concept, the WALL is everywhere. And many of the people hiding behind it, love it instead of hating it as the Germans once did.

“The Anti-Immigration WALL” in the Twenty-First Century: Will Brexit Result in an UK-Irish Version?

The sharp increase in refugees and unwanted persons from neighboring populations has posed a challenge for political organizations and politicians in all regions, driven by populous enmity, genuine national security concerns, or possible economic damage to a weak economy.

One need only look at the Myanmar expulsion of the Rohingyas to Bangladesh to see both sides of the coin: Religious fears on one side; economic burden on the other. Or, the Brazilians, Columbians and others coping with 3 million Venezuelans since 2015 who have fled because of a destroyed economy and a repressive government and wanting no more of them. As of this writing, it is an unfolding crisis without an ending in sight; at some point neighboring country politicians may look to some form of barrier or wall should the exodus continue.

In many cases the WALL has been the supposed answer, whether it is the Estonians building one to keep the Russians out, the India-Bangladesh barrier to prevent illegal immigration, or the proposed Costa Rica-Nicaragua structure. And, as noted in the excellent article “The Law of Walls” published in the European Journal of International Law (Volume 28, Issue 2, May 2017): “…the United Kingdom offered to give France a fence in order to stop the hundreds of migrants who regularly storm onto ferries leaving Calais for Britain.”

Should France have accepted? What about universal human rights? This article lays out the inherent conflict between the right of a sovereign to control its border and universal human rights commitments by which persons even outside the border, seeking asylum, should be entitled.  It notes, for example, that putting mines or automatic firing guns along the border to prevent asylum seekers, is not justified.

The “Barriers by Region” chart  provides the latest available information on “WALLs”. And they are everywhere across the planet:

Map of separation barriers in the world. The exact status of many barriers is unknown (length completed, etc), but also the number of barriers. Date: April 2013. Source: Wikimedia commons

Walls on Turkey-Syria Border and the U.S. Situation

Two cases are worth special attention because they serve to dramatize very different situations and the perfidious political nature of the idea. 

In the case of the Turkey-Syrian border, the surge of Syrian refugees amounts to over 3.5 million people.  The Washington Institute describes it this way: 

“Syrians make up nearly one-third of all refugees in the world, and Turkey hosts 63.4%
of them, or 3,570,352 people. This figure—culled last month from periodically updated
statistics released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—constitutes a
4.2% increase in Turkey’s 2017 population of 81,745,000. Such a large, sudden addition
warrants deeper analysis of the demographic, economic, social, and political effects that
displaced Syrians are having on Turkish society.”

This was triggered by the neighboring civil war provided an autocratic government with the needed cover to build a border-to-border WALL structure with its national construction industry and extensive military engagement, all partly financed by the European Union. The EU was willing to open its coffers to avoid further refugee incursions into the West Europe heartland.

As Der Spiegel put it:

“As a European Union member, the German government is also implicated in the arming of the Turkish border against refugees. The EU states have provided the government in Ankara with security and surveillance technology valued at more than 80 million euros in exchange for the protection of its borders, according to research conducted by DER SPIEGEL and the European Investigative Collaborations network (EIC).This included the transfer of 35.6 million euros by Brussels to the Turkish company Otokar as part of its IPA regional development program for the construction of armored Cobra II military vehicles, which are now being used to patrol the border to Syria.”

In the photo: Otokar Cobra at MSPO 2012     Source: Pibwl CC BY-SA 3.0

But this migration flood occurred only over a few years, and is ongoing. Many would argue the humanitarian effort needs to be accelerated with more funds, and less on the WALL.

The U.S. situation is in stark contrast to that of the Syrian exodus, affecting Turkey, Jordan, and the Europeans as well.

The flow of Mexicans and other Central Americans into the United States has been going on for decades with some de facto acceptance, such as by the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, and ever since by much sturm und drang by Congress but minimal action. This notwithstanding the numbers have been reduced dramatically. 

Comes the Trump campaign in 2016 with its top note–and until this day–the WALL, and the entire political class is engaged in immigration WALL warfare.  We do not know how this will all be resolved. A  bipartisan joint committee of both the House of Representatives and Senate is to come up with a proposal by February 15th that supposedly  the President will sign. One can only hope.

What is striking is that the WALL is increasingly seen externally as the symbol of the United States, and no longer the Statue of Liberty. 

The unfair and asymmetrical treatment of asylum seekers, inhumane treatment of them and their offspring is now widely seen as American values. For many Americans it brings back better memories of what the U.S. stood for, seemingly captured in Dolly Parton’s song “The Wall of My Mind”:

It will take great effort, changes in policy, legislation, and funding, to reverse this U.S. meme.  But it can happen, if there is sufficient political courage to do what is right and not expedient. Even then, unless there is a sea change in attitude and view.

Many of the U.S.  challenges are elsewhere.  What seems to be a truism is that WALLs will continue to be the easy non-solution to complex local political problems, when what is at hand is a global one.

And now to the future: If Brexit results in a hard landing, will the United Kingdom resort to WALLing off the Republic of Ireland? Or will the Republic of Ireland WALL off the Brits?


EDITOR’S NOTE: THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE BY IMPAKTER.COM COLUMNISTS ARE THEIR OWN, NOT THOSE OF IMPAKTER.COM FEATURED IMAGE: Ground views of different Border Wall Prototypes as they take shape during the Wall Prototype Construction Project near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, 21 October 2017 Photo by: Mani Albrecht (US Government) flickr.com

About the Author /

Richard Seifman is a former World Bank Senior Advisor and U.S. senior foreign service officer. He is currently a member of Board Member, United Nations Association-National Capital Area, The Global Fund Technical Review Panel and is Corvus Health Senior Advisor. He is also a United Nations Association-National Capital Area Board Member.

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